About a month ago I posted a reflection about this issue. Here is a shorter, revised version of that reflection.
There have been a number of articles, over the last few years, in the news and circulating in emails, about the collapse of the Episcopal Church. These articles cite as an example of the demise, the crumbling budgets of parishes and dioceses, and lay blame on liberal influences on church teachings. In response I have some thoughts, most of which are grounded in the studies of sociologists concerned with the state of Mainline Christian Denominations and the Episcopal Church in particular.
To understand the situation with some depth it helps if we begin by looking back 150 years ago and then progress forward to the situation today. Beginning around the year 1850 a world view known as “modernism” was developing. This point of view grew out of the development of scientific methodology, asserting that “for every question there was an answer.” By 1870 the concept of scientific reason had begun to influence theology. For example, it was during Vatican I (June 1868) that the Pope was defined as infallible. During this same period of time people began to speak of the Bible as inerrant. Prior to the 1870’s no one considered the idea that a human, even the Pope, might be infallible nor would they have imagined the Bible as inerrant. Thus, for the first time in Christian thought, there developed the idea of “Ultimate Truth.”
Eventually the idea that there could be “an answer for every question” began to polarize society into extremes of right and wrong, truth and untruth, black and white. It set up the means for groups of people to divide along the poles. Following in accord, churches became divided between liberal churches on one end and conservative churches on the other end.
Subsequently, historians, and the media, have posited a two-party system into religious history framed by the efforts of liberals versus conservatives to control the dominant voice in denominations. This division first organized itself around issues of race and science. Liberals advocated for freedom of slaves, placing a corporate responsibility for social justice issues. Liberals also embraced biblical criticism as a methodology to understand scripture from a number of perspectives including its historical context and its hermeneutical context.
In the meantime conservatives advocated for a biblical basis of owning slaves, and developed strong arguments for biblical inerrancy. They argued that the Bible was the literal word of God, without error – the Bible was a changeless theological handbook and moral guide. Conservatives also organized missionary work, focused on faith healing, and argued for moral strictness.
Many of the mainline churches such as the Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Baptists divided over these issues. Around that same time, from about 1870 until 1960, another phenomenon occurred in Christianity: there began a rising up between the liberal and conservative poles something which can be called the “Established” church.
The established church created a voice of Christian authority and tradition that held people in place and gave Christianity the dominant voice in this country for 90 years. Churches formed themselves somewhere on the liberal to conservative line but all with the same voice of authority defining what was good and right. The Established church and its voice of authority gave people clear understandings of what they were to do.
Christian spirituality during this time was focused on church buildings, family faith, and generations of families who worshiped in the same church and or the same denomination. The minister’s job was to perform certain spiritual tasks (baptism, weddings, funerals, Sunday worship), the church blessed the social order of society, comforted people in need and raised children in the faith.
In the United States the surrounding culture supported the Christian church as the voice of authority. This was true across denominations. The established church created a voice of Christian authority and tradition that held people in place and gave Christianity the dominant voice in this country for 90 years.
But around 1960 society began to change. Culturally Americans grew wary of all voices of authority and a shift occurred from an established centralized authority to many individual voices, each person able to be his or her own voice of authority. Known as “Post-Modernism” this shift of authority from “Institution” to “Individual” has had the most dramatic impact on the Church. Sociologists believe that churches today are undergoing a shift similar to the Reformation of the 1500’s! This shift is at the core of our issues today, despite the media’s desire to point the finger at the old polarity of “liberal’ versus “conservative.”
The media likes to both simplify issues and polarize issues, neither of which reflects the real depth and breadth of any issue. Minimizing the state of the church, whether Episcopal or otherwise, to a simplistic division of “liberal” versus “conservative” distracts us from a far more complex issue. Since 1960, due to technological advances like computers, the internet, and television, the emphasis on the “ individual” has shifted into a “plurality of individuals.” Our world is no longer “homogenous” but recognizes a vast diversity of liberal, conservative, ethnic, religious, and social realms.
All of these aspects of individualism pull at the seams of Christianity as a dominant voice in the world. This shift is further challenged by the recent economic decline, the likes of which have not been present at this magnitude in decades, if ever. Other challenges to the church include global terrorism and violence, and the tragedy of sexual abuse in the church. Whole generations of people are wary of the church, skeptical of its authority, and fail to find in it any way to make meaning for their lives. As a result of the shift from “Institutional” authority to “Individual” authority, the church, for many, is no longer meaningful nor able to be an agent of meaning-making in people’s lives.
The primary question before is, how can churches adapt to this shift in authority without losing our identity? Knowing who we are, as Christian communities, is fundamental. But knowing who we are means we must answer these questions: “How can churches offer people a way to make meaning out of their lives?” And, “How can churches offer people a way to make meaning out of the very real challenges before them?” Understanding the mission of the Church as God’s Mission, will point us in the right direction. Liberals and Conservatives might have different ideas of what God’s Mission looks like, but in the fullness of time, God’s time, we will probably learn that God’s mission includes both.
Thanks to Diana Butler Bass in “Christianity for the Rest of Us” and her presentation to the alumnae at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, Oct. 2006, and a variety of internet sources on “Modernism” and “Post-Modernism” such as Wickipedia.